Thursday Apr 18

TheBlackMaria FinalFront large the black maria
By Aracelis Girmay
120 pages, BOA Editions Ltd., 2016
ISBN-13: 978-1942683025

The black maria, the most recent collection by Aracalis Girmay, recipient of the 2015 Whiting Award for Poetry, is a harrowing journey through, and across, the sea and memory—a fractured and tidal unfolding that explores African diasporic histories, as well as the searing legacy of racism within the United States. Woven of legend and song, of personal experience and historical research, of science and dream, Girmay’s quest, both heartbreaking and celebratory, is an address to the dead, an attempt to “try to build // a shore for you here, a landing place, here, / where the paper dreams // that you will last.” Throughout the book—from the image of Neil deGrasse Tyson as a boy with a telescope “on the roof of this poem / with a moon in his heart” to the depiction of Romare Bearden’s “The Siren Song,” in which Odysseus’ “body is a black flag / wounding the pastoral”—we find ourselves continually calibrating and recalibrating a shifting horizon in which distance is always simultaneously “my wealth” and “my grief,” as Girmay investigates both what it means to inhabit story and to create stories of our collective and individual silences in a world where “The dead are always / You. Not you.”

The book is structured in two sections. The first section, “elelegy,”—born of the English “elegy” and the ululatory traditions of North and East Africa—is a poem cycle devoted to Eritrean history and the over 20,000 people who have lost their lives at sea while attempting to emigrate from North Africa to Europe in last two decades. Here, amid poems that speak directly to the dead and to the sea, we encounter the voices of the four Luams—one a child who died at sea, the sister of Abram, Pushkin’s great-grandfather, who was kidnapped into slavery and given as a gift to Peter the Great; one a woman living in Italy, having emigrated from Asmarra; one a teacher and poet born in the United States and residing in New York City; one a nurse in Asmarra—their voices and stories at once both distinct and overlapping. Girmay’s cadences are wave-like, rising and falling with the rhythms of the sea, “the beckoning of all that blue muscle.”

The second, titular section, “the black maria,” refers to “lunar maria” (plural of “mare”), the dark, basaltic plains on the moon’s surface, originally mistaken as seas by early astronomers, and in Girmay’s hands it becomes a symbol of distance, of the human inability to see clearly through distance. In this section, we are faced with frank discussions of the history of white supremacy within the United States laid forth through a powerful series of “estrangements,” poems studying the many ways in in which people become distanced from their histories, their bodies, their homes, and from one another. “…but a consequence is thinning me. / I am a farness now, & the moon’s black maria,” writes Girmay in the final lines of “Third Estrangement, in Memory of Jonathan Ferrell,” a poem written in the voice of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell, who was fatally shot by a white police officer in 2013 while seeking help following a car accident.

Ultimately though, the boundary between “elelegy” and “the black maria” is a thin one. In an interview with Late Night Library, Girmay describes how the two sections began as separate though concurrent projects:

I didn’t, at first, think about them as connected. In fact, history taught me to read these stories of Eritrean migrations and white supremacy in the United States as disconnected. I was trying to split myself into pieces to abide by someone else’s version of the story, and then, suddenly, I realized I mustn’t do that. I continued to follow one poem into the next into the next, and at some point it became clear that in each of the sections I am struggling to think about the ways that History is taught, told, organized, and how the poems, all of them, are struggling to think about the extent to which story helps us to throw flowers at each other’s feet, or fire. [i]

And indeed, Girmay’s careful and haunting repetitions of language, image, and sound crescendo into an oceanic weaving of human displacement that defies such division. She refers to this realization in the fifth section of “The Black Maria” (the latter of two poems by this title), beginning, “Somewhere I got the idea / to keep them separate: / this story from that one, / these stars from those…” and then rejects the old map for a new one:

But the angles I chart
Abide by different sight
& hover up not
as bears or sisters but
a route dense with fires,
dark time adorned by
the messages of mirrors
saying: you are made with every where.

This stanza encapsulates the poetics of the black maria. It is a poetics of multiplicity and of simultaneity. Each disparate experience, each possibility—for laughter or bloodshed, for weeping or celebration—exists one alongside the other. “Maybe he will be the boy who studies stars,” writes Girmay of her newly born son in the first section of “The Black Maria,” and then immediately: “Maybe he will be (say it) / the boy on the coroner’s table / splayed & spangled…” Line by line, each possible joy exists alongside each possible sorrow. Thus the speaker and the reader become linked to history and to one another through story and the possibility born in “things ordinary / as water & light.”

If possibility is what might allow us to overcome distance, to heal from the wounds of history, then language is the embodiment of such possibility, the thread we might be able to follow in order to find our way back to ourselves and to one another. Running throughout the black maria like a rip current is the notion of language as a source of possibility, as in “luam/ asa luam” where girls gathered together at the river exchange their different meanings for a single word: “…then give / her my word ‘mai,’ for ‘water,’ / & another girl tells me ‘mai’ is mother / in her language, & another says it meant, / to her, ‘what belongs to me’…”

Language is also an undertaking of restoration, as in “the luams,” the penultimate poem in the “elelegy” cycle, wherein this idea culminates into fully realized physical action:

we find you, then & with
            our thread &letters sew
you back, neatly, piece by piece,

hawi, our broken book
                        (at night we dream
as we assemble you

Here we witness Girmay’s keen sense of craft at play as the poem’s formal features undercut its words, reflecting its inherent contradiction. “Neatly,” we are told, and yet the physical shape of the poem before our eyes is jagged along the page; the fluidity of the sewing disrupted by ampersands, commas, and white space; the parenthetical left open and dangling for two stanzas before it is ultimately sutured. There is no idealism here, the poem clarifies. The way is broken, filled with pitfalls and ruptures. And yet rupture—space and distance, that double-edged presence—is also rife with possibility, as we see in the conclusion of “Fourth Estrangement, with a Petition for the Reunion of Jonathan & George Jackson,” the final lines of the book:

Time fools me into thinking
            they have not lasted, but let me tie

the breath that I borrow to
            the breath that you borrow, let
                        them meet through the green
that is you & that is me,
            & knowing what we know now
                        of history & of love,

let us name every air between strangers “Reunion.”

For what matters most, Girmay reminds us, is not the fact of our distance from our stories, from our own bodies, from one another, and from the dead. No, what matters is language: That we see this distance clearly for what it is. And that we learn to name it for what we want it to become.
Julia Julia Bouwsma lives off-the-grid in the mountains of western Maine, where she is a poet, editor, small-town librarian, and farmer. Her debut collection, Work by Bloodlight, was selected by Linda Pastan for the 2015 Cider Press Review Book Award and is forthcoming in January 2017. Her poems and reviews can be found in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, RHINO, and other journals. She is the Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and the Library Director for Webster Library in Kingfield, Maine.